What fictional president could trump Trump?

— a new presidency in the US may mean a new dawn for political TV, writes Ed Power 
What fictional president could trump Trump?

President Donald Trump speaks near a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Alamo, Texas. (Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP)

The sky was grey, the mood bleak as Donald Trump concluded his 'American Carnage' inauguration speech on January 20, 2017. As the newly-installed President (finally) fell silent his predecessor once removed, George W Bush, shook his head and muttered “that was some weird shit”.

The weirdness was only beginning. Twenty-four hours later, Trump would throw a hissy fit over reports in the media of vast empty spaces among the crowd gathered at Capitol Hill. Then would come the ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States; the summit with North Korea; the reports of Apprentice contestant-turned-White House hire, Omarosa Newman, leaving her shoes scattered around the West Wing. And the tweets — the endless, endless tweets. How could fiction possibly compete?

Donald Trump’s presidency, which has finally ended with the swearing-in of Joe Biden, has often felt like a cross between a bad dream and a bad episode of the American political comedy Veep. But whatever it was, Hollywood found itself thoroughly eclipsed. What fictional president could trump Trump?

This is why a Biden presidency may represent a new dawn for political TV. Or at least a return to the way things used to be. With Trump in office, there was no point in making a show that eulogised American democracy ( The West Wing), painted Washington as a nest of vipers ( House of Cards) or skewered the inanity of politics ( Veep).

In each case, Trump rendered the message redundant. American democracy needed saving, not lionising. Washington was no longer a nest of vipers — it was a mad house. And who wanted to laugh if crying was a more likely option?

But if Biden turns out to be the safe pair of hands we all expect, then the gap between fiction and reality will once again expand. And the entertainment industry will have an opportunity to fill it. The fictional TV president may be about to make a comeback.

The scale of the challenge Donald Trump presented to popular culture is difficult to over-state. Surprisingly few films or movies have been made about Trump. Alec Baldwin did get some mileage out of playing him as an idiot in a toupée on Saturday Night Live.“Not only did I never dream a man like him would become president but, also, I didn’t imagine that he would be able to find so many like-minded people to come and serve him,” Baldwin said of Trump in a 2019 interview with the Observer.

Emmy winner Brendan Gleeson portrayed ex-President Donald Trump in 'The Comey Rule'.

Emmy winner Brendan Gleeson portrayed ex-President Donald Trump in 'The Comey Rule'.

Baldwin’s was the most memorable take. But it wasn’t the only one. A more monstrous version of Trump was brought to the screen by Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson, in The Comey Rule. But, speaking to the Irish Examiner last summer, the makers of that series appeared to suggest that their Trump was, in his way, every bit as grand as Baldwin’s.

“As much as we love Alec Baldwin we don’t want to do the caricature version of Trump,” says Comey Rule director, Billy Ray. “We were [doing] less cartoonish make-up than he [Trump] actually wears. We were going to do the less cartoony version of his hair. That had to do with how Brendan played the voice and the mannerisms. Good luck doing it with someone who’s not a great actor. We did have a great actor, who allowed us to [portray] Trump as a human being with needs and drives and flaws."

Gleeson was a powerhouse but his performance felt redundant. We already knew Trump was an ogre. And so The Comey Rule was not quite hitting us over the head with a devastating insight. 

Trump’s presidency has otherwise been an artistic wasteland. When I spoke to songwriter, Conor Oberst, over the summer for Hot Press we compared and contrasted Trump and George W Bush. Oberst had famously written about Bush’s evangelicalism in 2005’s devastating When The President Talks To God. It seems significant that he declined to similarly skewer Trump.

“The thing people have brought to me is, ‘why not write The President Talks To God — Part Two about Trump?’ My answer to that is, ‘he doesn’t deserve that’. He doesn’t deserve me writing a song about him,” said Oberst. “He’s such a pathetic, disgusting piece of shit. I don’t want to immortalise him in a song. I’d rather have him disappear from history completely.”

“You can’t exaggerate him. He’s already the worst. Bush was… not to excuse the Iraq War and all the crazy things that happened in that time..[But]Trump is a completely different animal. He’s just a psychotic maniac.”

There has been some effective Trump satire, it is true. Comedian Sarah Cooper’s TikTok videos lip-synching to Trump weaponised his own inanities against him.

Yet where social media has gone, conventional entertainment has struggled to follow. HBO’s Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfuss played an inept vice president, skewered Washington’s culture of super-sized egotism and sociopathic go-getters since 2012. And then Trump became president.

House of Cards: portrayed Washington as a nest of vipers

House of Cards: portrayed Washington as a nest of vipers

“They’re either taking from our show or doing their own version of it,” the show’s executive producer, David Mandel, told Politico. “It’s the reason we left the air. It’s fun to write about a crazy president, it’s not so fun to live in a country with a crazy president as the body count rises. Incompetence is very enjoyable on the small screen."

West Wing creator, Aaron Sorkin, agreed. He told Vanity Fair that every good story requires either someone to cheer or a compelling anti-hero. In the current White House, he said, “there just seems to be a lot of moustache-twirling and cowardice".

President Biden inherits a divided America. But he will doubtless prove a more thoughtful and less controversial leader than Trump. And, after his inauguration, many around the world will feel huge relief.

That feeling will be shared by Hollywood. For as long as Trump was screaming blue murder on Twitter, the Oval Office has essentially been off-limits to storytellers. Now there is an opportunity for television to make the small screen president great again.

Six Presidential Dramas To Catch Up On

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in Veep

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in Veep

1: The West Wing: Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett was a comfort blanket to American progressives during the George W Bush years. Rewatched now, Sorkin’s belief in the strength of American democracy feels both uplifting and naive.

2: Veep: Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is a powerhouse as a comedically inept Vice-President who eventually claws her way into the top job. This is obviously fantasy — America would never elect a woman as president.

3: The Dead Zone: Martin Sheen had already played a president by the time of the West Wing. In this 1983 David Cronenberg adaptation from Stephen King, Sheen rolls his eyes and flares his nostrils as a charismatic non-mainstream politician who is destined to unleash chaos in the White House. 

4: House of Cards: The reputation of Netflix’s early tilt at prestige TV is in tatters after Kevin Spacey was accused of inappropriate behaviour. But its first two seasons still stand up. The storyline is preposterous. However, Spacey’s portrayal of a sociopathic politician who will stop at nothing to gain the White House leaves a chill.

5: Scandal: This ripe Shonda Rhimes drama stars Kerry Washington as a political crisis manager operating in Washington DC. It’s often a riot — just not as riotous as the past four years in American politics.

6: Designated Survivor: In this political thriller drama, Kiefer Sutherland stars as Thomas Kirkman, an American academic named as the designated survivor for the State of the Union address, who suddenly ascends from the position of US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to President of the United States after an explosion kills everyone ahead of him in the presidential line of succession. Kirkman deals with his inexperience as head of state while looking to uncover the truth behind the attack.

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